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Fri Jan 10, 2020, 08:57 PM


Friday Talking Points -- The Madman Theory, Personified

{Program Note for DemocraticUnderground.com readers:
This is a weekly roundup column of what is going on in the political world. For the duration of the 2020 campaign, I've been instructed to post it under the "Democratic Primaries" category rather than the "General Discussion" category, whenever the primary race is discussed. This discussion may be a large part of the column, or a very small part. Just wanted to clarify this up front, to avoid any objections that most of the post is "off topic."}

Well we made it to the end of the week without a major new war breaking out in the Middle East. At this point, that's about as good as it gets with Donald Trump in charge.

We've said it before and we're sure we'll have to say it again before the year's out, but President Trump is the personification of what Richard Nixon used to call the "Madman Theory" of foreign policy. Back then, it was a bluff -- if Nixon acted crazy enough, then perhaps the North Vietnamese would think he was so crazy he might just drop a nuclear bomb on them. This would tend to restrain them more than if they were sure he wouldn't.

Now, however, it is no bluff. Trump actually is a madman with no idea what he's getting into at any given time, on any given subject. This obviously weighed on the minds of the Iranians, who actually chose to take a measured approach to reacting, by lobbing some missiles at a few military bases in Iraq that housed American soldiers. Rather astonishingly, nobody was hurt or killed (they were all reportedly safe in bunkers for hours before the attacks happened), and even more astonishingly, Trump refused to retaliate further. Thus both countries backed away from the brink of all-out war. In this particular instance, the Madman Theory worked.

Next time, of course, we might not be so lucky. And nobody really knows if this is the end of the Iranian response to us assassinating their top military leader -- there could be much more covert or third-party attacks to come, either on the battlefields of the Middle East or much closer to home. So while we're all breathing a rather large sigh of relief right now, there may be another shoe to drop at some point further on.

The Trump administration has been far less successful explaining (read: "making up after the fact" ) any rationale for the initial assassination, other than: "Trump thought it was a good idea at the time." Trump's mouthpieces all adamantly insist that there was an "imminent" attack planned, and Trump pushed the envelope even further by stating that an attack (or possibly multiple attacks) would be targeting U.S. embassies. At this point, however, precisely zero people are giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, because he doesn't have a shred of credibility left after lying to the American public over 15,000 times in three short years. A recent analysis of one of Trump's rallies showed that a full two-thirds of his claims were lies, in fact, meaning the sheer volume of such falsehoods can be expected to increase, from now right up to Election Day. To explain his actions towards Iran to the American public, Trump gave one of those TelePrompTer speeches where he struggled to pronounce polysyllabic words, and even though it was short, he managed to squeeze in several out-and-out lies, just to make himself feel better.

During the week, Trump added to this record by tweeting out a threat that if the Iranians retaliated for the assassination, he would then target their cultural sites -- which would be a war crime. The Pentagon and other Trump aides had to then admit that they would never actually do such a thing -- meaning that Trump might have been on the brink of giving the Pentagon illegal orders which they would then have to refuse to follow.

This is where we're at, folks: the leaders of Iran are both more believable and more restrained than the U.S. president. Mostly because everyone remembers the movie Wag The Dog, and it's pretty obvious that Trump wants to shove the impending impeachment trial in the Senate off the front page by any means necessary.

Of course, while all-out war didn't actually happen, that fact didn't stop the all-out warmongering coming from Trump's minions. We were told that anyone (read: Democrats) who wasn't cheering Trump's actions wholeheartedly was "mourning" the death of the Iranian military leader, or just flat out "in love with terrorists." Those are actual quotes, the first from Nikki Haley (who was supposed to be a lot more of an adult than this) and the second from Representative Doug Collins, who stated in an interview that Democrats were "in love with terrorists, we see that they mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our gold star families." Apparently he has forgotten how Trump himself treats Gold Star families (which he was then brutally reminded of on Twitter). He later was forced to apologize for saying such a disgusting thing, but the damage was already done. All of this despite the fact that precisely zero Democrats either "mourned" the death of Soleimani or were "in love with terrorists." Trump, on the other hand, mocks the death of American politicians who spent years as prisoners of war and says he and ruthless dictator Kim Jong Un are "in love." Sometimes the irony is overwhelming, in other words.

Speaking of irony, let's take stock of how things stand after the tit-for-tat belligerence with Iran. When Donald Trump took office, Iran was slowly rejoining the international community and had made good on every promise it had made in the agreement to curtail its nuclear progress. Inspectors were allowed full access, and even the Pentagon was satisfied that Iran was making good on its promises. Trump then tore up the agreement, using the Republican rationale that "the agreement will end after 10-25 years, and then they'll be able to rush towards making a nuclear bomb!" You know, 10 or 25 years down the road. That was the fear.

Now, of course, Iran is free to rush to build a nuclear bomb right now. This is somehow supposed to be better than the agreement they were adhering to, according to Trump apologists. As for Iran's other activities in the Middle East, before we assassinated their top military leader, they were all over the place in Iraq and Syria. After the past two weeks, they will still be all over the place in Iraq and Syria -- but we may not be, soon. The Iraqis are still understandably upset that we launched missiles at cars leaving the Baghdad airport, and now they are demanding we begin a hasty exit from their country. It's hard to see this as anything but a loss for the American military, who may be forced out of Iraq, and anything but a win for the Iranian military, who will still be in Iraq after we leave -- and indeed, will likely get even stronger without us there to constrain them. It's tough to see how any of this puts us in a better position, but that's what the Trump apologists sincerely believe (somehow).

In actual fact, the Trump administration is having a tough time explaining things to either the public or to the members of Congress who are (theoretically, at least) supposed to hold the power to declare wars. Trump's team gave a briefing to members of Congress which didn't reveal much of anything that hadn't already been printed in the newspapers. Senator Mike Lee, usually a strong supporter of Trump, called it "probably the worst briefing I've seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I've served in the United States Senate." He then clarified how terrible the briefing actually was:

Lee said the message from the administration officials was that lawmakers need to be "good little boys and girls and run along and not debate this in public" — an instruction he described as "insane."

"With history as our guide, consultation isn't necessarily the same thing as authorization of the use of military force.... Drive-by notification or after-the-fact, lame briefings like the one we just received aren't adequate," Lee said.

He also said he was left "somewhat unsatisfied" on the level of information shared with regard to the legal justification behind the attack on Soleimani.

He said the briefing has influenced him to back a war powers resolution introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), pending some minor amendments.

"It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch... to come and tell us that we can't debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran," Lee said.

"It's un-American, it's unconstitutional, and it's wrong."

He also stated: "One of the messages that we received from the briefers was: Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran. And that if you do, you'll be emboldening Iran," meaning the administration's efforts to paint anyone disagreeing with them as the enemy isn't limited only to Democrats. In a later interview, Lee specified what really shocked him during the briefing:

As I recall, one of my colleagues asked a hypothetical involving the Supreme Leader of Iran: If at that point, the United States government decided that it wanted to undertake a strike against him personally, recognizing that he would be a threat to the United States, would that require authorization for the use of military force? The fact that there was nothing but a refusal to answer that question was perhaps the most deeply upsetting thing to me in that meeting.

Got that? Trump can kill the leader of a foreign country that we are not currently at war with any time he feels like it, and he doesn't feel the need to obtain authorization from Congress to do so. That should make us all sleep sounder at night, right?

What with all the dog-wagging going on this week, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that Donald Trump is awaiting his impeachment trial in the Senate (only the third one ever), and that there's a real race among Democrats heading into Iowa and New Hampshire. Although the field continues to shrink, there are still 13 Democrats running to replace Trump, and the next debate is scheduled for early next week. Julián Castro bowed out and then immediately endorsed Elizabeth Warren, and just today Marianne Williamson admitted the reality that her campaign was going nowhere fast and headed for the exit as well.

Surprisingly, there will actually be six Democrats on the debate stage next week. This is surprising because everyone expected just five, but the money that Tom Steyer has been sinking into advertising appears to have paid off, as he got just enough polling support to qualify (tonight at midnight is the deadline for such polls). So he'll be there, although Michael Bloomberg will not. Bloomberg made a few jaws drop this week by announcing he's spending $10 million on a 60-second Super Bowl ad -- something that is just beyond the budget of any other Democrat at this point. Donald Trump quickly announced a few hours later that he also would be ponying up ten million for his own ad, so we've all got both of those to look forward to during the game.

On the impeachment front, Nancy Pelosi has made her point and appears to be almost ready to send over the articles of impeachment to the Senate. The trial is tentatively scheduled to begin next Wednesday, although this could always change. This will mean the Senate will be in session six days a week, which is going to seriously impact the five senators still in the Democratic race (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Michael Bennet). You can't be in two places at once, of course, so they'll all be stuck in Washington while Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and all the rest will be in the midst of their last-minute push in Iowa (and, if the trial goes on long enough, New Hampshire). This was always unavoidable, but the scheduling may impact how the senatorial candidates do in the earliest races.

The biggest news on the impeachment front this week came from John Bolton, who now says he'll be willing to testify if the Senate sends him a subpoena. Whether they're going to do so or not is a very open question, though, meaning it may be up to the House committees to take him up on the offer instead. Bolton's testimony could wind up being crucial, or it could never happen -- we'll have to wait and see how it plays out.

And we'll end our roundup with some good news, because Virginia Democrats are about to hand a huge political gift to all Democrats running for office everywhere. Because the legislature is now Democratic, they plan on holding a vote on the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the next few weeks. They're going to ratify it -- they've already got the votes. Importantly, by doing so, they'll become the 38th state to do so -- which should fulfill the three-fourths requirement for amendments to be adopted into the U.S. Constitution. However, it's not that simple this time around. There are two big legal fights which will take place over the E.R.A., one of which has already begun. When Congress approved the amendment decades ago, they set a time limit for ratification. The deadline came and went, and the amendment didn't have the required three-fourths of the states' approval. The deadline was then extended, but once again they didn't cross the finish line. But the deadlines were never part of the amendment's text, they were just a sort of rider that Congress attached. So are such deadlines constitutional? That's the heart of the first big legal challenge.

The second one also raises a constitutional question never before faced: can a state "un-ratify" an amendment after they've already ratified it? Several states have done so in the intervening years. So does the proposed amendment really have three-fourths of the states behind it or not? This argument hasn't been made yet, but it doubtlessly will be at some point along the way. Both of these issues seem ripe for the Supreme Court to tackle, but that will take a while.

In the meantime, the issue will be a huge political wedge between the parties. Democrats everywhere can campaign on their wholehearted support for the Equal Rights Amendment, while Republicans are going to have to struggle to explain why they're against it. Some of them are already suing in court to block it, so this isn't some theoretical position. They'll try to claim all sorts of nonsense when attempting to explain their opposition to the E.R.A., but all Democrats have to do to counter it is point to the text of the amendment itself, because it is so short. Here is the entirety of the Equal Rights Amendment: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." That's it. That's all it says.

This, obviously, is going to be a big political winner for Democrats among women (and fair-minded men, for that matter). Especially those key suburban voters, who are going to be mystified as to why the Republican Party -- in this day and age -- is against ensuring equality for everyone's daughters and mothers. Being against such a simple and fair idea ain't going to play well in Peoria, we'd be willing to bet. And with the courts dragging things out, this battle is going to be ongoing for the entire election year. As we said, a huge gift from the Virginia Democrats to every other Democrat running for any office anywhere.

We missed it last week, so we have to give retroactive recognition to the lieutenant governor of Illinois, who not only supported making recreational marijuana legal but actually stood first in line to buy some on the first day of legal sales. Nice! Never in our wildest dreams would such a thing have even been conceivable 20 or 30 years ago, but now it was essentially a non-story outside of the state. We've come a long way, in other words.

But this week our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week goes to Senator Tammy Duckworth, also from Illinois. She responded to Trump's actions this week in the most scathing way possible, pointing out his failings and idiocies in excruciating detail. Here is the best part of what she had to say:

"Iran didn't want Trump to kill Soleimani," [Senator Duckworth] said. "But they were hungry for all that has happened as a result. They were starving to go on the offensive. Desperate to change the narrative, to swing public opinion and solidify their power in Iraq. To have a new excuse to attack anyone with an American flag on their shoulder, and to shrug off the restraints of the nuclear deal."

She continued: "Like a pawn in a game of chess he didn't even seem to know he was playing, Trump was baited into handing them all of that. Like a child who is blind to consequences, ignorant of his own ignorance, he's given Iran everything they could have asked for in the end, making it far more likely that tomorrow, or next week, or next month, more Americans will be sent into another one of the forever wars he's bragged he, and he alone, would be able to end."

She argued that the Trump Doctrine is that the president "gets manipulated again and again by hostile regimes."

"We've seen it played out on the streets of Venezuela and the deserts of northeast Syria. We've seen him get manipulated by tyrants in Pyongyang and Riyadh, subjugated by despots in Moscow and Ankara, as our allies laughed -- literally laughed! -- at him behind his back," she continued. "The president of the United States is as easy to control as a toddler.... My diaper-wearing 20-month old daughter has better impulse control than this president."

Tell us how you really feel, Senator!

Seriously, though, we heard plenty of denunciations of Trump and his shortsightedness this week, but nothing even came close to the takedown Duckworth served up. On the strength of this interview alone, Tammy Duckworth was the easy choice for Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

{Congratulate Senator Tammy Duckworth on her Senate contact page, to let her know you appreciate her efforts.}

Perhaps this one is just a wee bit personal, since she's our senator and all. Sigh.

Nancy Pelosi delayed the start of the Senate's impeachment trial by at least a week, by continuing to refuse to send over the actual articles of impeachment to Mitch McConnell. By doing so, she focused attention on the fact that McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate just want to make the whole thing go away rather than conduct an actual trial with actual witnesses and actual evidence. Pelosi never really had that much leverage to begin with, and this week a few Senate Democrats began pointing this out in frustration. By the end of the week, Pelosi was signaling that she's almost ready to send the articles over, which is now expected to happen early next week.

Now, there's a way to politely disagree with Pelosi, as Senator Chris Coons showed everyone: "I respect the fact that [Pelosi] is concerned about the fact about whether or not there will be a fair trial. But I do think it is time to get on with it."

You'll notice that he doesn't stoop to using Republican talking points to register his disagreement and frustration with Pelosi. However, there's another way to do this, what we would term "the wrong way." That is to use Republican talking points as your main thesis, as Senator Dianne Feinstein did: "The longer it goes on the less urgent it becomes. So if it's serious and urgent, send them over. If it isn't, don't send it over."

It comes as no surprise to us that Feinstein sounds an awful lot like a Republican here, because we've heard her do exactly the same thing so many times in the past. For showing other Democrats how not to respectfully disagree with Pelosi in an effort (that did work, we have to admit) to get your own name and face in the news, Dianne Feinstein is this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week. We fervently hope that this will be DiFi's last term and that she'll step down and make way for a younger and much better senator from the great state of California. One can certainly hope.

{Contact Senator Dianne Feinstein on her Senate contact page, to let her know what you think of her actions.}

Volume 556 (1/10/20)

We're still a little rusty in the talking points department after the holidays, so these are kind of all over the map this week. There are some serious points made, and then there's a quote from Homer Simpson. Hey, it's been that kind of week.

Who is better off?

This should be obvious, but many are missing the big picture.

"So let's see... after the past two weeks, who exactly is better off as a result? Well, we killed the head of Iran's Quds Force, and nobody can argue against the fact that the world is a better place without him in it. However, he will be replaced -- it's not like we wiped out the entire Quds Force or anything. The government of Iraq is now insisting that all American troops pull out of their country, which is going to mean that Iran will have a free hand to gain even more influence there as a direct result. That's got to be chalked up as a big win for them. And all of this came to be because Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, which would have kept them from working on a nuclear bomb for more than a decade. Now, they are restarting this work as we speak -- that's now, not in 20 or 25 years' time. So Iran's influence and military are getting stronger, and our influence is getting a lot weaker. How is this a win for us, exactly? I'd really like someone to explain that, because I just don't see it."

Has Executive Order 11905 been rescinded?

This is a rather important question that nobody in the media seems capable of asking right now, for some strange reason.

"I would like the Trump White House to answer a very simple question: has Executive Order 11905 been rescinded? This was the order signed by President Gerald Ford back in the 1970s which bans political assassination by the United States. This week, however, a Trump official briefing Congress couldn't answer a hypothetical question about whether they should get congressional approval before assassinating the political leader of Iran. The answer to that should have been 'such assassinations are illegal,' but somehow that's not what was said. So I'd like to know if this is now official U.S. policy. Presidents can always sign new executive orders, so would someone please ask Donald Trump if he has done so to overturn Executive Order 11905? Because I think the public really deserves a clear answer to that question."

Commander Cuckoo-Bananas

The following was uttered by Homer Simpson, a while back. He was warning Bart what would happen if he got kicked out of school, and although he was speaking about George W. Bush at the time, the following quote got a lot of attention this week, for obvious reasons. So to all the boys and girls, you need to be good not just for Santa but for the following reason:

And if you get kicked out of that (school), you're going straight in the army, where you'll be sent straight to America's latest military quagmire. Where will it be? North Korea? Iran? Anything's possible with Commander Cuckoo-Bananas in charge.

I want YOU (but not ME, of course)

We really should have given this an Honorable Mention back in the awards section, but we wanted to save it for here. Some pranksters made up a new Army recruiting poster updated for our illustrious first family. It has an image not of Uncle Sam, but of Donald Trump Junior. Next to him is the inspiring slogan:

I'm not enlisting, but you should!

It gets even better in the smaller print. Below the main slogan is the tagline:

There's weak, and then there's Trump weak.

These posters are now available online, should anyone (hint, hint) wish to print one out and post it up near their local recruiting station.

What law would that be?

Donald Trump, when he was forced to walk back his threat to commit war crimes by targeting Iranian cultural sites, was pretty petulant. He kept trying to make the case that he really should have the freedom to bomb any mosques he would like. But eventually he had to state that he would indeed obey the laws of war which prohibit such atrocities, to which he added: "...if that's what the law is, I like to obey the law." On the internet, hilarity ensued. HuffPost has a list of the funniest of these, but we thought one in particular was worth repeating as a Democratic talking point:

"Donald Trump said, after someone explained to him that targeting cultural sites would be a war crime, that he 'likes to obey the law.' Really? That's news to me. As one waggish commenter put it: 'Which law? Name one.'"

Bring it on!

As mentioned previously, this one is going to pay rather large political dividends.

"Democrats in Virginia are on the brink of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, which would make them the 38th state to do so. Normally, that would mean it would then become part of the Constitution, but Republicans are fighting this outcome as hard as they can. I have no idea why, because ensuring equal rights based on sex should be about as non-controversial as you can get in the year 2020. What's the problem with doing so, after all? I have no real idea. But Republicans are out there manning the barricades to prevent it from happening. I'd like every woman voter out there to ask any Republican running to represent them in any governmental office whether they support the E.R.A. or not. The entire amendment is only twenty-four words long, so I'd invite all the Republicans who oppose it to explain exactly which word or words they disagree with. On the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, I think any candidate for public office ought to support ensuring women equal rights in this country, and for the life of me I cannot see why anyone would disagree."

Trump's Nobel envy

And finally, some snark to close on, just because.

"Donald Trump really really really wants his own Nobel Peace Prize. Just this week, he tried to take partial credit for the Nobel prize given to the leader of Ethiopia. Trump bizarrely stated: 'I made a deal, I saved a country, and I just heard that the head of that country is now getting the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the country. I said, "What, did I have something do with it?"' The answer to that question is a resounding 'NO!' Ethiopia reached a peace deal with Eritrea, which was why the Nobel was given. Trump had absolutely nothing to do with this peace deal being reached in any way, shape, or form. Instead, Trump confused another negotiation, between Ethiopia and Egypt over a dam, with the peace deal. It's downright pathetic watching Trump go green with envy each and every time the Nobel committee laughs at his efforts to win the peace prize. Donald Trump has an acute case of Nobel envy, and it's just sad to see."

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
Follow Chris on Twitter: ChrisWeigant
Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com
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